Mumm-bo Jumbo

“Signs of life in mummy exhibit in Mexico have experts worried for those who get close”

This is the eye-catching headline of Aspen Pflughoeft’s article published yesterday in the Miami Herald. When I happened upon the piece in my newsfeed today, I felt a jolt of excitement. The macabre bent of my imagination had me anticipating a report of an uncanny shift of position detected in one of the exhibit’s desiccated constituents. My interest only grew when I began reading the article and discovered that the traveling exhibit displayed the famed “Mummies of Guanajuato”–the same collection of preserved corpses immortalized by Ray Bradbury in his 1947 Dark Carnival story “The Next in Line” (later collected in The October Country).

To my disappointment, though, the article soon revealed the disconcerting “sign of life”: patches of fungus on one of the mummies, a growth spurt that could pose a biohazard to viewers (the exhibit’s arrangers downplay any safety concerns). Suddenly, Pflughoeft’s headline turned into an exacerbating case of click-baiting. But as HBO’s The Last of Us has shown, a thriving fungus can make for a quite frightful antagonist. And articles such as the one in the Miami Herald are just the sort of raw material that provides inspiration for the horror genre’s dark dreamers. Here’s hoping that there will be some new mummy tale of apocalyptic outbreak forthcoming in the near future, one forming a worthy successor to “The Next in Line.”


Altogether Ooky October: The Addams Family and Halloween

Yes, I was really disappointed to learn that Tim Burton’s new Netflix series Wednesday wouldn’t be premiering until after Halloween season (three more grueling weeks to wait!). But that just sent me back to view earlier incarnations of the Addams Family, and it turns out that the creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky household has a rich history of Halloween association.

The Halloween connection traces back to the inception of the Addams Family. Charles Addams’s vintage New Yorker cartoons more commonly skewer the Yuletide holiday, but there is one signature piece in which the Addamses descend en masse on the wilds of Central Park in late October (with Uncle Fester even toting a jack-o’-lantern under his arm).


As a 1960’s sitcom, The Addams Family featured two separate Halloween episodes. In episode 1.7, “Halloween with the Addams Family,” a pair of robbers on the run (Don Rickles and Skip Homeier) attempt to hide out at the Addams home and get caught up in the family’s crazy celebration of its “favorite holiday” (the festivities include “bobbing for the crab”). And long before The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Addamses gather for a recitation of a special holiday-splicing poem: “It was Halloween evening, and through the abode / Not a creature was stirring, not even a toad. / Jack-o’-lanterns are hung on the gallows with care / To guide sister witch as she flies through the air…”


“Halloween–Addams Style” (2.7) means bite-size salamander sandwiches prepared via guillotine, and porcupine taffy crafted by Grandmama. After an insensitive neighbor spoils the trick-or-treating Wednesday’s holiday joy by claiming that witches don’t exist, a séance is conducted to contact the Addams ancestor Aunt Singe (who was burnt at the stake in Salem). Comedic confusion ensues when a witch-costumed neighbor out on a Halloween scavenger hunt shows up at the Addams mansion.


The sitcom’s original cast returned in living color for the 1977 TV movie Halloween with the New Addams Family (a film that features extensive scenes of an Addams-hosted costume party at which various bits of hilarity occur). Halloween is clearly Christmas for the Addams Family, as is evident from the legend of Cousin Shy, a jolly spirit who “carves a smile on a specially hidden pumpkin, and leaves beautiful gifts at the feet of the Halloween scarecrow.” As if all this wasn’t festive enough, the closing scene presents the Addamses in candlelit procession, singing a macabre carol: “Scarecrows and blackbirds are always together. Spiders spin cobwebs in overcast weather. Cauldrons are brewing and banshees are doing a weird and ghastly routine, to wish you a merry, creepy Halloween.”


The 1991 cinematic adaptation The Addams Family concludes–you guessed it–on Halloween night. Gomez carves a cyclopean jack-o’-lantern; Pugsley dresses as his Uncle Fester, and Wednesday (in her everyday clothes) as a “homicidal maniac.” Then the Addamses head outside for a rousing game of Wake the Dead, which involves digging up departed relatives from the family graveyard.


For Halloween 1992, The Addams Family animated series served up “Puttergeist.” While the title references a certain Steven Spielberg horrorfest, the episode itself riffs on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Granny regales the family with a Halloween tale: four decades ago, a golfer hit the links on Halloween night, only to lose his head to a lightning strike. Thereafter he haunts the town as a specter with a giant golf ball for a head–quite a swerving from the pumpkin originally employed by Washington Irving.


In 1998 came the Canadian reboot The New Addams Family, whose series premiere “Halloween with the Addams Family” is a redux of the same-titled episode from the 60’s sitcom. Old gags are updated: Fester goes bobbing for hand grenades; Gomez wipes the smile off a jack-o’-lantern, carving a scarier expression with his fencing sword. Pugsley and Wednesday (dressed as Siskel and Ebert) wreak havoc on the neighborhood when they go trick-or-treating (one candy-stingy couple who foolishly demand a trick before handing out treats end up in a homemade electric chair rigged to their doorbell).


This survey of Halloween legacy should also make mention of the influence of the Addams Family on Ray Bradbury’s Elliott Family (a positively monstrous clan who, in the author’s classic story “Homecoming,” gather in an Illinois manse for a Halloween night reunion). In his afterword to his 2001 Elliott Family chronicle From the Dust Returned, Bradbury details his relationship with Charles Addams. Their plans for a book collaboration never came to fruition, but Addams did create an elaborate illustration of “Homecoming” when the story was first published in Mademoiselle.


For an outré crew like the Addams Family, every day is Halloween. But this First Family of Gothic comedy has also treated fans to plenty of October-31st-specific content over the years. I am eager to see if the forthcoming Wednesday follows this fine tradition.




Dark Carnival Extended: “The Watchers”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“The Watchers” (1945)

Bradbury’s narrator, Steve, works as personal secretary to William Tinsley, a captain of the kitchenware industry who wields a “flyswatter as scepter.” Tinsley is strangely obsessed with killing any and every insect in his midst. His pesticidal mania doesn’t stem from a basic phobia; he believes that insects (all living animals, in fact) are planted bugs, agents of surreptitious surveillance who report back to some mysterious governing force that Tinsley can only label “They.” Tinsley, who “refuses to talk when there’s an insect in the room,” intones to Steve: “We are being watched constantly. Is there ever a minute in our lives that passes without a fly buzzing in our room with us, or an ant crossing our path, or a flea on a dog, or a cat itself, or a beetle or a moth rushing through the dark, or a mosquito skirting around a netting?” The story offers another sinister turn of the screw when Tinsley realizes that there are more evil/infinitesimal entities to fear: microbes.

Opening a dark new window onto the everyday, “The Watchers” is quintessential Bradbury. Just as Steve is infected with Tinsley’s “apprehensive awareness,” the reader can’t help be haunted by the specter of the paranoid premise (Bug Brother is Watching Us!). The story is infested with disturbing visuals, such as the description of Tinsley’s father, who was accidentally(?) killed by his own gun in a hunting accident, and whose corpse was overrun when his young son returned with belated help: “The entire body, the arms, the legs, and the shattered contour of what was once a strong, handsome face, was clustered over and covered with scuttling, twitching insects, bugs, ants of every and all descriptions, drawn by the sweet odor of blood.” The imagery grows even more grotesque when Tinsley (and later, Steve) falls sudden victim to a “rotting fetid combination of disease.” Unsettling in idea and execution alike, “The Watchers” ranks as one of the most horrific pieces Bradbury ever composed. Perhaps the reason it wasn’t installed in the original edition of Dark Carnival (I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall if Bradbury ever articulated his rationale for the exclusion) is because its unremitting gruesomeness threatened to overshadow the rest of the collection’s contents.


Dark Carnival Extended: “The Poems”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“The Poems” (1945)

The poet David stumbles upon a strange ability to capture reality, a talent that extends far beyond the common conception of verisimilitude: “Somehow, David had caught up, netted, skeined, imbedded reality, substance, atoms–mounting them upon paper with a simple imprisonment of ink!” His poetry proves “too perfect”–it actually erases from existence what it describes, leaving nothing but an “unnatural blank-spaced silence.” Basking in the glow of his meteoric rise (literary critics hail him as “the greatest poet who ever lived”), the hubristic David ultimately precipitates his own downfall. Like some mad scientist, he begins to experiment with dogs and cats, sheep and even people as the subjects of his poetry. But when David proclaims his intention to write about the universe itself (“I’ll dissect the heavens if I wish, rip down the worlds, toy with suns if I damn please!”), his horrified wife Lisa takes clandestine yet drastic steps to dissolve their marriage.

Leave it to a creative genius like Bradbury to think up such a story about the wonders–and dangers–of the imagination. Appropriately, the image-rich prose here (“The paper was a square, brilliantly sunlit casement through which one might lean into another and brighter amber land”) approaches the quality of poetry. In its concerns with the uncanny power of inking, the story also prefigures the classic tale “The Illustrated Man.” “The Poems” is certainly dark enough in import; perhaps the only thing that makes it an imperfect fit with the contents of the original Dark Carnival collection is its predominantly vernal (rather than autumnal) vibe.


Dark Carnival Extended: “Bang! You’re Dead!”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“Bang! You’re Dead!” (1944)

Fair-haired Johnny Choir plays at war, running and laughing, ducking and dodging, pointing and yelling “Missed me!” and “Gotcha!” He’s unquestionably young at heart but maybe not quite right in the head: Bradbury’s twist is that Johnny is an actual U.S. soldier fighting in Italy during World War II. As his army buddy Private Smith says, “As far as I can figure, he thinks this is all a game. He never grew up. He’s got a big body with a kid’s mind in it. He doesn’t take war serious. He thinks we’re all playing at this.” Johnny’s strange outlook seems to work like a good luck charm, protecting him from enemy fire as he moves recklessly. This amazes the fear-gripped Smith, and bemuses another soldier named Melter, who eventually takes a shot at Johnny himself, then tries to tear through his mental armor by revealing that they are in fact fighting a war. Hurt by the news, Johnny stumbles off, and is soon wounded by a German artillery shell. He survives the head injury (which likely will wipe away the memory of Melter’s spoiler), and at tale’s end he (along with Smith) is scheduled to be discharged and sent home to America. The rotten Melter fares much worse, though, after desperately trying to mimic Johnny’s tactic: he ends up strafed with machine-gun fire while running down a hill “screaming about being a kid again.”

“Bang! You’re Dead!” proves quintessentially Bradburian in theme, contrasting the “innocent wonder” of youth and adult experience, vivid imagination and harsh reality. Johnny’s psychological defense mechanism–regressing himself to the playful days of his Midwestern youth–hints at the terrible, traumatic nature of war. Nevertheless, the story features an emphatically happy ending, which frees Johnny from military service and paves the way for him to “go on believing the world is a good place.” Perhaps this ultimate light-heartedness (contra the other stories in the table of contents) is exactly what dissuaded Bradbury from including the piece in the first edition of Dark Carnival.


Dark Carnival Extended: “The Sea Shell”

In a recently-concluded retrospective, I explored the contents of Dark Carnival (marking the 75th anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s debut collection). And now tonight brings an addendum….The 2001 Gauntlet Press reissue of Dark Carnival offered bonus reading: a quartet of weird tales that Bradbury did not include in the 1947 edition. Over a series of four posts, I will look back at those stories, considering how they might have fit if chosen for the first publication of the book.

“The Sea Shell” (1944)

11-year-old Johnny Bishop, bedridden with an unspecified illness, “wants to get out and play, badly.” The frustration over his confinement is alleviated when the family doctor gifts him with the titular object (which seemingly sounds a call from the remote Pacific: “The ocean! The waves! The sea!”). Now, “whenever the afternoons stretched long and tiresome, he would press [the sea shell] around the lobe and rim of his year and vacation on a wind-blown peninsula far, far off.” The sea shell stirs the wanderlust of Johnny, a Midwesterner who only knows of the ocean through movies. Johnny’s mom chides him for his “impatience with everything in life. you must have things–right now–or else.” In response, Johnny reasons, “If I wait too long, I’ll be grown up, and then it won’t be any fun.” Apparently, Johnny decides not to wait until he gets over his sickness to get out of the house. Lured by “the singing chant of boatmen faintly drifting on a salt sea wind,” Johnny uses the sea shell as a magical portal to an actual seaside adventure.

“The Sea Shell” presents some distinctly carnivalesque imagery: Johnny’s bed quilt is described as “a red-blue circus banner,” and after Johnny’s bewildered mom finds him missing but hears (via the sea shell) him frolicking in the ocean, the bedroom whirls around her like “a bright swaying merry-go-round.” But the story isn’t terribly dark, playing out more as an offbeat fantasy tale (in which Johnny ends up in a happy place). For this reason, and because Bradbury did include a much darker tale (“The Emissary”) centered on an ill, bedridden child, “The Sea Shell” was perhaps wisely omitted from 1947’s Dark Carnival.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Next in Line”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here]


“The Next in Line” (1947)

Hemingway meets Poe in this narrative of a bickering tourist couple who encounter the macabre. A few days after the “Death Fiesta,” El Dia de Muerte, Marie and her husband Joseph visit the catacombs of a graveyard “in a small colonial Mexican town” (according to biographer Sam Weller, Bradbury drew from his own experiences while on a trip through Guanajuato, Mexico). Propped within the underground tomb are 115 mummies, desiccated corpses dug up from the earth and stood up in this postmortem holding cell when their poor relatives could no longer afford the annual rent on their graves. The resultant tableau is an “embarrassment of horror”: silent screams pour “from terror-yawned lips and dry tongues,” one former cataleptic mimes the agony of her premature burial, and a woman who died during childbirth has her stillborn infant wired to her wrist “like a little hungry doll.” Joseph, a photographer, takes the scene in stride (he considers publishing “an ironical [picture] book,” and even offers to buy one of the figures from the cemetery caretaker), but Marie is terribly frightened by the experience. She develops a morbid fixation with the mummies, to the point where even the sight of a plate of aligned enchiladas triggers dread. Her nervous concern takes its toll, prostrating her, and leading her to beg her husband not to let her body be relegated to the catacombs if she dies. But that appears to be exactly the tact taken by the ghoulish Joseph, who is last glimpsed driving back toward the U.S. border with the passenger seat conspicuously empty alongside him.

“The Next in Line” makes for a fitting end to Dark Carnival, as the mortality concerns that run thematically through the book’s contents are writ large here. Bradbury deftly conjoins the carnivalesque and the sepulchral, describing the mummies as standing “like the naked pipes of a vast derelict calliope, their mouths cut into frantic vents.” The narrative (closer in length to a novella than a short story) takes its time unfolding, not rushing toward some simple, grimly twisting climax of the E.C. variety. Richly (if hauntingly) atmospheric and rife with psychological complexity, “The Next in Line” displays the numerous talents of a writer poised to transcend the shudder pulps.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Cistern”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“The Cistern” (1947)

On a rainy afternoon, Anna stares dreamily out the front window and waxes fanciful about the titular receptacle: “A dead city, right here, right under our feet,” she tells her fellow-spinster sister Juliet. Anna imagines an experience of secrecy and childlike fun, “liv[ing] in the cistern and peek[ing] up at people through the slots and see[ing] them not see you.” She also envisions a pair of dead lovers residing in such underground abode, desiccate mummies reanimated each rainy season (“She told how the water rose and took the woman with it, unfolding her out and loosening her and standing her full upright in the cistern”) and sent floating out to sea in circumnavigation of the globe. Matters take a darker turn, though, when Anna suddenly insists that the dead man in the cistern is her old beau Frank (who’s “been gone for years, and certainly not down there,” Juliet tells her sister). Distraught, Anna weeps silently. Juliet dozes off, but wakes to the sounds of Anna fleeing outdoors and the cistern lid lifting and slamming down again.

“The Cistern” warrants multiple readings if only for its crafted ambiguity. Does Bradbury’s tale put more emphasis on uncanny rebirth (the lovers’ amazing resuscitation by the rainwaters) or tragic death (as the lonely, loveless, and mentally anguished Anna presumably drowns herself)? In its consideration of a fantastic underworld, the story anticipates the work of Tim Burton (e.g. Corpse Bride). But the macabre implications of the story also point to a certain Stephen King opus where the sewer system (not to mention the idea of floating corpses) proves much more sinister.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Man Upstairs”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“The Man Upstairs” (1947)

Eleven-year-old Douglas Spaulding is immediately unnerved when Mr. Koberman, a “tall strange man” with “cold gray eyes” rents a room at the boarding house run by Douglas’s grandparents. Koberman has an unfriendly demeanor, and a dark aura that seems to suck the color and warmth from the room. He also exhibits some curious behavioral quirks: the man has a strong aversion to silver (he tips in copper pennies and eats his meals with wooden utensils), is out all night and sleeps like the dead during the day. The enmity between Koberman and Douglas continues to grow, especially after the former frames Douglas for the breaking of a multicolored glass window (through which Douglas had been able to catch glimpse of Koberman’s true nature). Clever Douglas, though, gets the last laugh. Emulating the culinary efforts of his Grandma when she guts/stuffs a chicken, Douglas vivisects the resting Koberman (removing his weirdly-shaped, gelatinous organs) and fills the chest cavity of this inhuman, vampiric creature (who had been preying on local woman) with lethal silver dimes from Douglas’s piggy bank.

Like much of Bradbury’s fantastic fiction, “The Man Upstairs” is rooted in the author’s own childhood experiences (the colored glass window so integral to the plot here mirrors the one that captured a young Bradbury’s fancy). As a Douglas Spaulding story, “The Man Upstairs” (like “The Night” before it in Bradbury’s debut collection) clearly prefigures Dandelion Wine. With its mix of nostalgia and the macabre, it also links with From the Dust Returned, Bradbury’s expansion of Dark Carnival narratives such as “Homecoming” and Uncle Einar” (in which the author’s own beloved relatives are positively recast as Halloween monsters). Perhaps most intriguingly, the story (in which a young boy faces off against a sinister figure in human guise, a peripatetic predator who disruptively appears in the boy’s Midwestern hometown) anticipates Something Wicked This Way Comes. A terrifically imaginative and blackly humorous piece in its own right, “The Man Upstairs” is noteworthy as an early map of the shadowy paths Bradbury would travel down in future, classic works.


Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Dead Man”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“The Dead Man” (1945)

An eccentric layabout (with a tendency to stretch out in the gutter) claims decedent status for himself, insisting that he perished in the “flood that washed away my farm and all my stock and put me under water, like a chicken in a bucket.” Martin might not be deluded (as he has no detectable pulse, “can’t eat,” and gives off an “awful smell”) but is derided by the rest of the town. All except the mousy manicurist Miss Weldon, who appreciates Martin’s taciturn nature (vs. the “loud” and “mean” men inhabiting the barber shop where she works). Unwilling to buy into Martin’s morbidity, she tells him, “You’re dead for want of a good woman’s cooking, for loving, for living right.” The pair has a “quiet elopement,” but Martin’s mention of purchasing a “house out on the edge of town” turns unsettling when the townspeople belatedly realize he was talking about one of the tombs in Trinity Park Cemetery.

Much like its titular character, “The Dead Man” is an odd story, seemingly unsure of what it is exactly (a mordant tale with an E.C.-style climactic twist? an offbeat romance, in which two quirky characters find love?). As a kinder, gentler version of the walking dead, Odd Martin allows Bradbury to approach his predominant subject (and the book’s virtual leitmotif) from a not-quite-as-macabre angle. Still, the story seems an imperfect fit with the rest of Dark Carnival. To echo the decree of the young girl in the narrative who vetoes using Martin as a Halloween party prop: “Not scary enough.”